The modern trend for a healthier cuisine can, in great part, be attributed to one man. Guy Hibbert travelled to Gascony to meet chef and culinary innovator Michel Guérard
One of the foremost figures of modern French gastronomy, Michel Guérard has this year been celebrating forty years as a holder of three Michelin stars. To meet the chef, and to experience at first hand some of the magic that four full decades at the very top of his profession have conjured, I was kindly invited to visit him at his hotel and restaurant in the heart of Gascony, Les Prés d’Eugénie.
Visit their website and you will notice under the name of the hotel the phrase L’univers poétique des Maisons Guérard. Now, I am accustomed to reading a lot of frothy hyperbole that some swanky hoteliers and aspirational restaurateurs add to their marketing, so I must confess to having reacted with a soupçon of cynicism about such a grand claim. But there was no call for such doubt; for this, dear reader, is the real deal. This goes beyond mere luxury accommodation and first-class gastronomy: this enters the realm of unforgettable lifetime experience, that holy grail of the travel and tourism world. At Les Prés d’Eugénie, from the moment you arrive, you are immersed in charm, courtesy, beauty, style and comfort – all at once. It is hard not to be seduced by the ambience, the aura.
A little anecdote might help put this into context. During our dinner we shared a pleasant few moments towards the end of the evening chatting with the French couple at the table nearby – I took their photo and they took ours – and it transpired that they were celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary. The following morning the lady from the table asked if she might meet the great man himself. He gracefully made an appearance and we watched their encounter. She was quite overwhelmed. I heard her say that it had been a long-standing dream of hers to visit Les Prés d’Eugénie and so this really had been one of the highlights of her life.
You see, it’s that kind of place. Hang the expense, let’s create a special moment, a cherished memory.
The Guérard family, Michel, now 84, his wife Christine, their two daughters and son-in-law, with the help of a couple of hundred staff, run a small empire of three hotels and a network of health spas. Followers of French gastronomy will remember that Michel Guérard was one of the figureheads of the movement in the 1970s to create a healthier and leaner form of cooking, which later became known around the world as Nouvelle Cuisine.
This was nothing short of a revolution in contrast to the lavish, rich, heavy sauce-laden world of post-war French cuisine. And with Christine Guérard’s family already in the business of offering spa cures and health treatments, and their hotel base in the spa town of Eugénie-les-Bains, it came as no surprise that Michel Guérard should develop and refine this new cuisine into his own Grande Cuisine Minceur, or ‘Great Slimming Cooking’.
While Michel is the star of the show, directing operations in the kitchens, overseeing menus at the different restaurants in the group, or teaching at the on-site cookery school, it’s his wife Christine whose eye and hand are in every detail of the hotel, with spectacular results. White, the colour of purity and perfection, is the ever-present backdrop: white marble, white limestone, white-washed floor, timbers and beams, endless white orchids – all create harmony and luminosity. Upon this neutral palette is laid a symphony of highly decorative embellishments: antique bureaux and armoires, crystal chandeliers, grand oil paintings, contemporary furnishings and endless beautiful details wherever the dazzled eye travels. The overall effect is calm yet romantic, impressive yet not pretentious. This lack of pretension – so unusual in establishments of this standard – creates a warm and relaxed atmosphere, echoed in the manner of the staff, who are attentive and friendly but not fussy or overbearing. Perhaps it is the unusual conjunction of wealthy clientele drawn to the three-Michelin-star cuisine contrasted with the modest requirements of residents and visitors to the thermal spa – many of whom are staying for a three-week medical cure, accommodated in nearby hotels, and often funded by the state health system.
So when the time finally came to meet Michel Guérard, I should perhaps not have been surprised to find that he comes across in much the same, unpretentious way. A sprightly octogenarian, with a sparkle in his eye and a head of thick, grey hair, he is dressed quite informally in a heavy cotton jacket and trousers. He is charming and engaging and has the manner of a man with time to answer questions and discuss his history.
Though often cited as an inventor of Nouvelle Cuisine he says that this was simply a natural evolution from the excesses of the Cuisine Classique of the 50s and 60s. Several other chefs, for example, Paul Bocuse, the Troisgros brothers and Roger Vergé, had arrived at the same place via different paths. In Guérard’s case, he told me: “When I had the fortune to meet my wife and I came to the family hotel here at Eugénie-les-Bains back in the 70s, it was clear to me as a chef that the clients visiting the thermal spas could be offered something better and more appetising for their low-calorie meals. So I began to experiment, trying to offer dishes that were in the familiar style that French people appreciate, but without so much salt and sugar and butter and so on.”
Guérard’s ingenuity has been to develop and refine his healthy slimming cuisine alongside his gastronomic cooking. His book La Grande Cuisine Minceur was first published in 1976, yet it was only a year later when he won his third Michelin star and Cuisine Gourmande was published. These two complementary styles are still at the heart of his kitchen today, but he has also added other unique strings to his bow. The École de Cuisine Santé, housed in a state-of-the-art professional training kitchen, offers restaurateurs and private clients from all over the world the chance to learn how to cook gourmet meals for the diet-conscious. Meanwhile, a robust and rustic homage to Gascon country cooking thrives in the farmhouse restaurant La Ferme aux Grives, another wonderful old building which forms part of the estate.
One of the key ingredients in Guérard’s cooking is verveine citronnelle, lemon verbena. It is widely known in France as a popular herbal tea but is also increasingly used by chefs. Here at Les Prés d’Eugénie we walked in the potager and marvelled at all the produce and the infinite varieties of herbs, but especially the long, bright yellow-green avenues of verveine citronnelle. Touch the leaf and you pick up the unusual combination of lemon with a touch of spice. For centuries verveine citronnelle has been known as a medicinal plant beneficial in the treatment of digestive ailments. In cookery it can create interesting and subtle tones of sweetness but with undertones of bitterness, creating a very clean taste. Lemon verbena is a simple and easy to cultivate plant; a natural, subtle and flexible herb that can create a modest yet refreshing herbal infusion, or be worked up to become part of a fabulous gourmet confection. No wonder it is the ‘signature herb’ in the Guérard kitchen and makes starring appearances in his poetic world; for example in madeleines, vinaigrettes, sauces, ice creams and soufflés.
Conscious I was speaking to a man who, at 84, was still an active chef, cookery school teacher, winemaker, hotelier and spa entrepreneur, I just had to ask: What was the secret behind such boundless energy?
“You need passion for what you do and you can only have passion if it interests you. You can continue for a long time as long as you are not bored.”
And was retirement part of his plans? What did retirement, la retraite, mean to him?
He answered with a pun! He spoke of the retraite aux ambeaux, the candle-and torch-lit procession of le 14 juillet that gave him happy memories of his childhood. Of formal retirement he said:
“It has failed to be part of my lexicon because it is, for me, the opposite of life, of creation, the permanent breath nourished by dreaming and blossomed through activity. A breath of life that gives me no desire to hang up my apron. I obviously respect those who live, with serenity, this retirement, for which curiously, I have no ability.”
He is clearly a man who looks forward not back, but I did want to know what he considers to have been his greatest achievement.
“A few moments, such as a certain month of June 1958, when I was named the Best Pastry Chef in France,” he said. “Then also the years when I participated with a few chefs in the revival of French cuisine, at the end of the 60s and in the early 70s – this movement which became known as ‘the New French Cuisine’.
“And more recently, it is the title of ‘Palace’, which has just been awarded to our hotel resort, highlighting the enthusiasm that has never ceased to inhabit us, my wife and I, as well as our two daughters, Eléonore and Adeline, to carry out this recognition – to which we must add the 40 years of three Michelin stars.”
I wondered too, whether, over the years he had created any special dishes of which he was most proud?
“Many continue to seduce me, those which have managed to cross a few decades without taking a single wrinkle (in the opinion of others); these dishes become classics with a certain ‘Proustian’ connotation, such as “L’oreiller moelleux de mousserons et morilles, Le homard rôti et légèrement fumé à la cheminée, or Homard ivre des pêcheurs de lune”.
Trying to be a little provocative, and going off-topic perhaps, I persisted and asked Monsieur Guérard what his opinion was of the growing trend for veganism, especially amongst some younger people in the West? His response to the question was typically philosophical and entirely non-judgemental: “Is it a trend, a new religion, another way of eating?” he asked. Then, re ecting further, he added: “I would not be able to criticise it, as I respect the freedom of others so much, those who, for philosophical, sentimental or other reasons, take a path that leads us to the obligation to meditate on our certainties.”
And, as for the future, I wanted to know what remaining ambitions are on the horizon for this ever-energetic figure?
“This is less an ambition than a dream, but it is to one day see our two daughters as crazy, as passionate, as we are. But, God be praised, it is already done and it thrills us.”
We were privileged to sample both the Cuisine Minceur dinner (under 600 calories) and the Grande Cuisine Étoilée, which included spectacular highlights and signature dishes beyond my powers of description and the space available on this page. The Cuisine Minceur was extraordinarily appetising and ultimate proof that you can combine slimming and gourmet eating. The ‘Palais Enchanté’ Michelin menu was simply out of this world. The aforementioned Oreiller moelleux de mousserons et de morilles aux asperges de pays, inspired by the chef’s visit to China, was heavenly.
L’oeuf poule au caviar à la coque, a classic recipe from 1977, a simple hen’s egg filled with flavours of smoked potato, herring, egg, caviar and asparagus, served with a little toast soldier, was sheer indulgent bliss. After such a meal you could retire to a barren land, live on porridge, and never regret for a day thereafter that you didn’t in your life get to savour one of the world’s truly great gastronomic experiences.
For more information, visit www.michelguerard.com
From France Today magazine